Augusto Pieroni – eng

Photography and Creativity

Augusto Pieroni, thank you for giving me this interview. 05-feb-2015

foto © gabriele fasulo

photograph by © gabriele fasulo

In the preface of your book: “Leggere la fotografia” (Reading Photography – 2003) you wrote that in two decades of teaching you’ve always been following the old Chinese dictum: «If you want to do good to a man, don’t give him fish: teach him to fish». I wonder: is it really possible either to teach creativity or to show people their way to it?

We can’t teach it, but I think we can give valuable hints and clues. It’s a truly thrilling job, made of an enormous amount of information, experiences, examples – both positive and negative etc. It takes a lot of generosity, basically, but also patience, curiosity, skill and – oddly enough for one like me – synthesis. In doing this work I seldom provide instructions, I feel rather like exploring together with the students; actually I can never exactly predict what I shall be dealing with at every lesson. There are issues that need to be tackled and delt with in a new and fresh way every time, such as: personal works in progress, the growth of a student as an author, the creative processes undergoing, cognitive novelties and so on and so forth.

Many practitioners dream of becoming professional creatives, but some might argue that creativity is a gift only for a few. Does struggling our way to creation makes us also proficient as photographers? In other words: could a photographer, stripped of any technical ability, ever achieve creativity?

Your question has, like, three heads. The first one is strange, for it might suggest giving for granted that ability can make you move faster in time, that knowledge might shorten its length or – worse – money could refund its loss. You need a given time to evolve, anyway. Exellence will never be either replaced by virtuosity, or reached in no time; not to say bought. Who is ever going to repay the wine-maker for the time spent without selling those bottles, left there to improve through time? If his wine will achieve exellence, the wine-maker will be repaid by fame: for there will be much talking about his work in the years to come. Enhancing one’s own creative freedom not only won’t boost her/his technical skills, but it will reframe them as fundamental tools. Maybe we could rephrase this by saying that creativity will sharpen technicality, giving to it a certain subtlety and purposefulness bending it to unpredictable purposes and goals, which are not implicit in technicality itself. The opposite is also true: a photographer, challenged by a narrow technical vocabulary, might very well know exactly what s/he is trying to achieve, and achieve it nonetheless; unconventionally perhaps. On the way to expressive freedom, technical ability is rather an obstacle than a facility. Would you prefer to own a 100.000 $ car you don’t know where to drive, or would you rather nurture that yearning for reaching that special person, or going in that special place, even if you don’t know when your legs will fail and what it will take to complete your journey?

Is it true that any photographer who is trying to give form to her/his creative vision, is always at risk to be denied public attention and approval?

Public approval is – or rather: should be – the very last of problems. The public is a bodyless entity, a senseless one, at that. Public taste is like a hundred-headed monster born from the acceptance of past creative innovations, but entirely unable to grasp the present ones. Respecting people’s judgment, copying it, is a marketing issue, not one of creative quality. You can resolve creatively your client’s problems, but getting to know the real voice within you is entirely another quest. The aims of creative effort should always be: searching out your demons, identifying your own voice, sharpening your personal vision.

During a lecture you recalled the 17th Century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini who, as a young apprentice at his father’s bottega, carved astonishing masterpieces. On such grounds you highlighted the importance of education and training, and the focal role of educators. Will you elaborate on this?

As you very well know, this is a long and tangled subject; we all know the deep and long lasting effects produced on young people by their exposure to rich and diverse sources of stimulation. Unluckly this often turns into: tennis, dance or judo courses, foreign language or piano lessons, and any other sort of dog-training-for-kids. The most serious issue, at least in Italy, is rather the impoverished texture of the average cultural level – the one encompassing most families, I mean – something we can’t only blame a choking public instruction for. But, really, I wouldn’t want to oversimplify the matter. Not everything can be solved by starting as toddlers, though. Let’s say I was suggesting that we must do what we are called to, with constance, uncompromisingly and – why not? – no matter the sacrifice.

Creative people have a tendency to draw motivation from inside; this means they are less incline to seek reward or approval. Psychologists have demonstrated that creativity is boosted when people are confronted with difficulties; researches suggest that inner motivation might in itself fuel creativity.

That was my point, basically. The aim is inside ourselves, even though public acceptance is undeniably a rewarding factor for any author. Let’s be clear, though: the first price for creativity must never be self-worship. The main creative achievement is the conceiving and the making of one’s own work, its growth and development. In order to attain this goal we might also need the advice of others.

Kaufman says that the art of adaptation to change is a must for creative success. «Creative people fall, but know how to rise». There is a deep, although underrated, link between taking risks and creativity. Steven Kotler says: «Creativity is an action turning nothing into something. It is fantasy’s gamble».

Creative research is impossible if you can’t feel unsatisfied by the solution you have found, and the urge to find a better one. When failure is felt as a personal challenge, we need a radical reconsideration of what mistakes and corrections mean. It is fundamental, though, to never mistake people’s advice as God’s judgement.

During an interview, Oliviero Toscani declared that the “creative person” doesn’t really exist: there is rather a project, a concept; what can be considered as creative lays just in the manner of realising such ideas. Creativity, in other words, depends on the final result of some kind of work. What is your opinion?

What I think of this statement diverges from the high opinion I have of the visual genius often – not always – demonstrated by Oliviero Toscani. A third of this quotation is commonplace, the rest is sheer rubbish. I even feel that Toscani himself suspects things don’t go exactly this way, as he knows far too well art and creativity, by strongly promoting them. Try to recall: when is the last time Toscani has said or done what was expected from him? Challenging received ideas is his demon. Looks like he won’t sleep well at night if we are not upset by the positions he takes. He’s so coherent.

Once you said that boasting ability is like crying out one’s own limits, and that the true artist has already enough troubles trying not to waste his/her art, but rather cultivating it privately. Sometimes we are asked to act purposefully in order to be praised, but you say – should the world unwelcome us – we should still keep working for our own pleasure. Is it so?

carYou might refer to a passage I often read from a 1933 essay by Tanizaki Junichiro, who said such things. Cultivating the art in yourself means allowing yourself the time for bringing it to full development, that is towards its natural shining. Not a flashing or artificial brilliance, but the lustrous quality you get from a pearl being efully rubbed day after day – as the Japanes writer puts it – until it reveals its own beautiful finish: that same patina time provides only to the things rich with experience. Tanizaki himself warns us from seeking the public’s praise: if we don’t create for our own sake, once the public’s praise is gone, how will we ever more enjoy our own creativity? How could we feel free and alive anymore, because of it?

You talk about facts, thoughts, images, points of view. Is the photographer creative, or is it the gaze of the beholder?

There is always a vast freedom in interpretation: that is where the different audiences’ creativity deploys. I would even suggest to call it: projective productivity. Such multifacetted and ambiguous business – although very well known by some – is the core business of many of my conferences and courses, so – if you don’t mind – I would reserve their exploration to my students; do you?


Contemporary art historian and critic, curator and writer, for over fifteen years professor of Photography History and Criticism at the Universities of Rome-Sapienza and Viterbo-Tuscia. Currently teaches: Visual Arts and Creative Personal Project at the Scuola Romana di Fotografia; Critical Approach and Portfolio Construction at Officine Fotografiche; Photography History at Istituto Europeo di Design-Roma and Rome University of Fine Arts. Beyond the long seller “Leggere la Fotografia” [Reading Photography] (2003) he is the author of: “Arti fotografiche del ‘900” [Photographic Arts in the 20th Century] (2010); Photography for the Italian Encyclopedia Treccani 21st Century (2007); “Fotografia<Arte<Pensiero” [Photography<Art<Thought] (2002); “Fototensioni” (1999). A contributor to such magazines as: Aperture (NY), Hotshoe (London-NY), Eyemazing (Amsterdam), Muse (Milan), Around Photography (Bologna), FotoCult (Rome).

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This interview is published in Photo4u and in the blog MU.SA. of Sara Munari